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2012 Olympics: The ones to watch

A blind archer, the Jamaican sprinter who might beat Usain Bolt, and Canada’s top medal hopefuls


 

Paula Findlay: Triathlon/Canada

The comeback kid

Paula Findlay knows she can beat the best. The 23-year-old Edmontonian won three straight races last year in triathlon’s World Championship Series, vaulting to No. 2 in the global women’s rankings. But can she get past her ailing right hip? The mystery pain started one year ago, before a test event on the London Olympic course in Hyde Park, and it took another eight months to pinpoint the cause: a small tear to the labrum, the ring of rubbery tissue that lines the socket of the joint. “Shocked, scared and somewhat relieved to finally have a diagnosis,” Findlay blogged after receiving the diagnosis. She opted against surgery, relying instead on meds and physio, and she’s had only 15 weeks to get into shape for the Games. Worse, the injury most affects the strongest component of her race, her running, which means she’s now something of a long shot to medal. But her coaches will tell you there’s a layer of sandpaper beneath Findlay’s youthful exterior. And what is triathlon about, if not grit? CHARLIE GILLIS

(Emilio Naranjo/EPA)

Adam Van Koeverden: Kayak/Canada

Something to prove

Four years ago, Adam van Koeverden made a rare mistake. Lined up for the men’s kayak 1,000-m final—an event he dominated all summer long, sweeping gold in the world cup—he decided to think rather than just paddle. To hold something back for the finish instead of sprinting like hell from wire to wire. He was still first off the mark and led to the three-quarter point, but over the last 250 m the rest of the world reeled him in and then passed him by. He crossed the line in last place, defeated in every sense of the word.

A silver-medal performance the next day in the K1 500-m—the race he had won in Athens in 2004, to go along with a bronze in the 1000-m—allowed him to leave China with his head held high. But it didn’t make up for the disappointment. “It was something that I had to learn,” van Koeverden says. “That I was capable of racing that poorly.”

London will be about correcting that error. There is only the K1 1,000-m this time (the 500-m race has been replaced with a 250-m sprint, an event he won’t contest). And the 30-year-old remains a force, having won the world championship last summer, and finished in the medals at all three world cup races this year. The goal is gold. “I’ve done the podium thing,” he says. “This time, I want to win it.” JONATHON GATEHOUSE

(Laurent Fievet/AFP/Getty Images)

Eric Lamaze: Equestrian/Canada

A new horse for London

He’s had his trials and triumphs, and another test of Eric Lamaze’s resilience awaits. The defending Olympic equestrian champion will attempt a repeat performance of his surprise gold in 2008—but without his star mount Hickstead, that died of an aortic rupture at a tournament in November. The sight of a frantic Lamaze standing over his writhing horse is burned into the memories of show-jumping fans. Lamaze has been trying to diminish expectations for Derly Chin de Muze, the nine-year-old mare he’s chosen to ride in London. But if anyone can guide her to victory, it’s the 44-year-old Lamaze, who has battled adversity before and won. CHARLIE GILLIS

(Al Charest/QMI Agency)

Dylan Armstrong: Shot Put/Canada

In these arms, a nation’s hopes

Dylan Armstrong still lives among the cowboys and railway workers of his native Kamloops, B.C.—Canada’s training headquarters for sports in which you throw things. Few athletes embody the spirit of a blue-collar town so fully as the 31-year-old shot-putter. When not competing, he can be found at the National Throws Centre, chalk dust clinging to his bullish neck, eyes fixed as he heaves his 7.26-kg ball toward orbit.

Armstrong has single-handedly put Canada on the shot-put map, and in London will be the country’s best medal hope in athletics. He’s the reigning Pan-American champ and missed Olympic bronze in Beijing four years ago by less than a centimetre. The silver he won last summer in Daegu, South Korea, is the first earned by a Canadian in a throwing event. “A medal’s a medal,” he said afterward, but as everyone knows, those stamped with a five-ring logo count for more. Armstrong wants one badly enough that he battled back from an elbow injury to win gold at last month’s national Olympic trials in Calgary. “I feel really good,” he later told reporters. “This is just one step to getting to the podium.” CHARLIE GILLIS

Jennifer Abel & Alex Despatie: Diving/Canada

Forward Momentum

Jennifer Abel has a ritual. When the 20-year-old diver gets back to her parents’ house in Laval, Que., after a competition, she lays the latest piece of hardware on the coffee table in the living room for family and friends to admire. A couple of days later the medal gets shoved away in a box for safe-keeping. The original idea was that she’d be able to open up the treasure chest whenever she needed some extra motivation. But with 20 podium finishes in the last two years alone, that really hasn’t been necessary. And if everything works out in London, she might need to upgrade to a trophy case.

Competing in the 3-m springboard, and in the 3-m synchro event with her partner, three-time Olympic medallist Émilie Heymans, Abel is keen to put the lessons she learned in Beijing—where she finished 13th in the individual competition as a 16-year-old rookie—into practice. “I realize now that the Games are completely different,” she says. “I can’t let myself feel the pressure.”

Fortunately, she’ll have a good role model close at hand. Alexandre Despatie has been a force since breaking onto the world scene as a 13-year-old at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. Now 27, he’s looking for his third Olympic medal. In Beijing, he overcame a broken foot suffered months earlier to win silver in the 3-m springboard event. This time, the hill is even steeper. At a competition in early June, he whacked his head on the board and opened up a 10-cm gash—an injury that cost him weeks of crucial training. “The hardest part will be psychological,” he says. “But I’m going to do the best with what I’ve got.” JONATHON GATEHOUSE

(Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Oldershaw: Canoe/Canada

Generations of paddlers

Last fall, Mark Oldershaw took on the best in the world in a C1 1,000-m race at the London Canoe Sprint Invitational and beat them all. It was a nice confidence builder for the 27-year-old paddler, heading toward his second Games. And all the more so given that it came on the official Olympic course in Eton, just down the road from Windsor Castle.

A third-generation Olympic canoeist—his grandfather Bert competed in London in 1948, his uncles Dean and Reed in Munich and Montreal, and his father and coach, Scott, in L.A.—Mark is determined to become the first family member to hit the podium. And his victory in London was a big boost. “Knowing that I can win there helps a lot,” he says. “I never want to lose on that course.” JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Women’s Soccer Team: Soccer/Canada

Powering a winning team

If you looked at the familiar faces on the roster of the Canadian women’s Olympic soccer team—one-third have played more than 100 international games—you’d think their new coach, John Herdman, is a status quo kind of guy. Wrong. When Herdman took over in September, the former head coach of the New Zealand women’s team saw his task as building medal contenders from experienced players who seemed incapable of converting big moments into wins. They’d lost to the U.S. in the quarter-finals in Beijing. They were blown out in the first round of the World Cup last June. They needed to “move to greatness,” he said. “And it needs a total buy-in [by] those players, knowing they’ve got to accept responsibility for every action, in every game that we play.” He wanted a cohesive, confident and fitter team. He based them in Vancouver and fitted them with heart monitors and global positioning units to track their on-field movements during practices.

He worked their guts out but treated them as people, not commodities. The coaches “are really taking into account every aspect of our lives, not just us as athletes,” said defender Robyn Gayle. Veteran goalie Karina LeBlanc said Herdman has had a big impact in a short time: “You read about leadership in Fortune 500 companies, and what leads to success is empowerment. He’s all about that.”

The real measure comes in their first Olympic test July 25, when seventh-ranked Canada takes on third-ranked Japan. Forward Christine Sinclair said the team is ready to face powerhouses like the U.S., Japan and Sweden. “We’re a confident team and feel we can beat them,” she said. “But those are just words. We have to actually do it.” KEN MACQUEEN

(Zumaspress.com/Keystone Press)

Ryan Cochrane:Swimming/Canada

No longer private Ryan

Four years ago in Beijing, swimmer Ryan Cochrane was a 19-year-old unknown quantity. The media attention went to the bigger-name veterans of the national team, people like Brent Hayden and Rick Say. So there was a serious case of Ryan Who? when he seemed to come out of nowhere to win Canada’s only swimming medal in Beijing, a bronze in the 1,500-m freestyle, the longest event in the Olympic pool.

Today, at 23, he’s the face of a rejuvenated national swim team, a team that’s gunning for three medals in London. That’s two more than Canadian swimmers won in the Athens and Beijing games combined. “We probably have six or seven good shots,” said Randy Bennett, the national team’s Olympic coach, and Cochrane’s Victoria-based coach for the past 10 years.

Bennett sees two medals coming from Cochrane. He said he has a good chance at the 400-m freestyle, and he’s a serious threat to move up the podium in the 1,500-m. “No pressure on the expectations, eh?” Cochrane said with a laugh. In fact, both coach and pupil relish the pressure. Cochrane is itching for a duel in the pool with 20-year-old phenom Sun Yang of China. Yang swam away with the gold at the last two world aquatic championships, with Cochrane the silver medallist in both meets.

To beat the world’s best, Cochrane has accessed the scientific and therapeutic resources of Own the Podium and the Canadian Sport Centre Pacific. “We have a group of upwards of 40 people involved in what I do every day,” he said. The guy who once seemed to swim under the sonar now can’t move two strokes without being measured, monitored and critiqued. “I can’t even begin to tell you the data we have on Ryan,” said Bennett. Aerobic and anaerobic capacity, biomechanics, underwater video analysis, stroke movement, use of nutritional supplements, everything is measured. “We have volumes and volumes,” said Bennett. This year he layered data going back five years into a slide presentation to show how the inch-by-inch daily advances have translated into astounding progress over time.

One of the few breaks Cochrane allowed in his training routine was time off to watch Canada’s considerable success at the Vancouver Olympics. “I think Vancouver changed the mindset for athletes in every sport,” he said. It instilled a professionalism in Olympic sport. “I hate the term amateur athletes,” he said. “We’re not amateur by any means.” KEN MACQUEEN

(Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images)

Im Dong-Hyun: Archery/South Korea

Shooting blind

He may be legally blind, but that doesn’t mean Im Dong-Hyun can’t fire an arrow 70 m across a windy range and hit the bull’s eye. The South Korean archer has severe myopia that puts his vision at 20/100 in his right eye and 20/200 vision in his left. What this means is that when he looks down the archery range, all he sees are blurred lines of colour. No big deal. He has learned to “feel” each shot with incredible muscle memory and just aims for the fuzzy yellow blob in the middle. Sometimes his teammates have to tell him where the arrow landed. Often they say it landed in the dead centre.

Im, 26, refuses to improve his vision by wearing glasses or contact lenses because he is used to seeing his target this way. He is also used to winning. In addition to his World Championships and his recent world record score of 696 in the 72-arrow men’s individual ranking, Im has two Olympic gold medals from Korea’s winning teams in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. The only prize still missing, for him or any male Korean archer in history, is the elusive individual Olympic gold medal. The lines on the target may be hard to see, but his goal is not. AARON HUTCHINS

Usain Bolt & Yohan Blake: Sprint/Jamaica

Faster than Lightning

Usain Bolt was the breakout star of the Beijing Olympics, but Jamaica has a new sprinter on the rise—22-year-old Yohan Blake. Both sprinters train at the same club in Kingston. Both hold current world titles: Blake in the 100-m and Bolt in the 200-m. But the similarities end there.

Blake is known as “the Beast” for his furious work ethic and meticulous technique. Bolt, however, is as famous for his easygoing attitude as he is for his breathtaking speed. In Beijing, he famously slowed down to celebrate his win in the 100-m, pumping his chest before he’d even crossed the finish line. After setting the world record for the 200-m just days later, Bolt told reporters he prepared for the event by sleeping until noon and eating chicken nuggets. At five foot eleven, Blake is a powerful starter off the blocks. Bolt, six foot five, reacts more slowly, but few runners can compete with his long stride once he gets going.

Since winning gold in 2008, Bolt has bested both of his world records and came first in every international event where he crossed the finish line. At the 2011 world championship in Daegu, Korea, Bolt was disqualified from the 100-m event for a false start, and Blake became the de facto world champion. Then, in a shocking upset at the Jamaican Olympic qualifiers this spring, Blake bested Bolt in both the 100-m and 200-m. Going into London, it remains to be seen if lightning can strike twice. MIKA REKAI

(Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Oscar Pistorius: Sprint/South Africa

Breaking new ground

Oscar Pistorius has been called a lot of things— “Blade Runner” or “the fastest man with no legs” are two that come to mind—but what he should be called is a world-class Olympian. Not a Paralympian. Pistorius, 25, was born without a fibula in either leg; both were amputated below the knee before he turned a year old. The native of Pretoria, South Africa (and the country’s sexiest celebrity, according to one magazine), will be the first person without biological legs to compete in a running event at the Olympic Games. Fitted with carbon-fibre protheses, his personal best— 45.07 seconds in the 400-m dash—won’t be fast enough to medal, but he’s surprised critics before. AARON HUTCHINS

(Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Michael Phelps: Swimming/United States

Prepared to Dominate

At age 27, American swimming superstar Michael Phelps has learned the value of restraint: he’ll compete in just seven individual and relay events. London will be his last Olympics; he says he wants to “relax a little bit.” So, no chance of repeating his eight-gold-medal performance from Beijing. Swimming has already brought him an estimated $40-million fortune, and 16 medals, all but two gold, from his three previous Olympics. Three more of any colour will make him the most decorated Olympian of all time. Although fellow U.S. Olympic swimmer Tyler Clary has questioned his “lack of preparation,” Phelps is a podium threat in any of his individual events: the 200-m and 400-m individual medleys, and 100-m and 200-m butterfly. This is a guy who’s trained with U.S. Navy SEALs, and mows through a 12,000-calorie daily diet. What’s that if not preparation? KEN MACQUEEN

(John MacDougall/Getty Images)

Paula Radcliffe: Marathon/Great Britain

Chasing fame from infamy

Thirty-eight-year-old Paula Radcliffe will be running in her fifth Olympics. She hopes for her first medal to erase a string of disappointments. Her lowest moment came in Athens in 2004, where, a handful of miles from the finish line, she stopped running, sat down and cried. Still, few other runners have a greater desire to win—at virtually any cost. On her way to first place at the London Marathon in 2005, she broke her stride to relieve herself in front of unforgiving cameras. Infamy was hers again during another on-the-course pit stop at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she finished 23rd battling injuries. Radcliffe is currently suffering from an “agonizing” foot injury, but no one doubts she will push herself to the limit once again. ANDREW STOBO SNIDERMAN

Marta Vieira da Silva: Soccer/Brazil

Scoring against a macho game

Fame didn’t come easy for Marta Da Silva, known simply as Marta or “Pelé in skirts,” a reference to the best footballer of all time. She grew up playing with boys on the hard-packed dirt fields of Dois Riachos, a tiny village in northern Brazil. In a country where macho culture is so entrenched—women were barred from even playing the beautiful game until the ’80s— she is “a miracle,” says Lu de Castro, a women’s soccer journalist in São Paulo. Marta was discouraged from playing by her mother and reportedly beaten by her brother for doing so, all before being spotted by a scout at 14. Thankfully, she persevered. The women’s game has never seen a player of her calibre. GUSTAVO VIEIRA

(William Volcov/NewsFree/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Find out what’s really going on in London. This summer, from our best team of award-winning journalists Jonathon Gatehouse, Charlie Gillis, Ken MacQueen, Scott Feschuk and Leah McLaren will make Macleans.ca your go-to source for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Between them, they’ve covered more than a dozen Olympics and they’re bringing that experience to London. Follow them every day for the stories behind the stories. They’ll take you to the scene of the action and help keep tabs on all the competition. And each day of the Games, our fan guide will tell you who to watch—and when.


 
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2012 Olympics: The ones to watch

  1. I wish there was a way we could inspire and engage far more young Canadians into the universal sports realm .

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